Writings about Music

Sonny Stitt Influencing John Coltrane

Sonny Stitt

The main influence Sonny Stitt had on John Coltrane was projecting an almost bursting impassioned tone and presence on sustained notes while remaining eminently musical with subtle vibrato and a degree of melancholic, yearning sweetness, a stylistic emulation more from Stitt's alto saxophone than their shared tenor saxophone.

Sonny Stitt performing Autumn in New York on alto saxophone

John Coltrane performing Weaver of Dreams on tenor saxophone

For a 1956 The Encyclopedia of Jazz Yearbook questionnaire, answered with handwritten responses, John Coltrane listed Sonny Stitt first among favorite musicians on his instrument, followed in sequence by Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins and Stan Getz. All these are tenor saxophonists, of course, with the exception of Stitt who is known equally for both tenor and alto saxophone.

From Stan Getz the primary influence on John Coltrane was fomenting a steam of flowing and cascading melodic invention from a seemingly inexhaustible source while keeping timbre, texture and rasa paramount, individual pitches oftentimes presented in equidistant fashion within a labyrinth of sound, a manner of tenor saxophone playing Coltrane grew to magnify exponentially in his own original directions, also extended to soprano saxophone playing.

After my original writing here - this is an added paragraph - I was pleased to come across a related insight of pianist Richie Beirach, part of the Stan Getz Quartet with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette in the early seventies. Richie was awestruck by how musically Getz navigated breathtaking tempos, describing the situation thus: "The eighth notes change. The triplets become more flattened out because of the tempo. How to keep it from getting stiff. This is a magic thing." Again, my sense is John Coltrane studied Stan Getz's playing in great detail, including fast and slow tempos, deeply touched by his magic. Coltrane even famously said about Getz: "Let's face it - we'd all sound like that if we could."

Stan Getz and John Coltrane

Stan Getz performing It Don't Mean A Thing, his solo beginning at 2:33

John Coltrane performing Countdown, his solo beginning at :33

Curiously, biographers of Coltrane sometimes go out of their way to downplay or even attempt to erase by omission John Coltrane's love for the music of Stan Getz, a profound attraction that seemingly passes over their heads, including missing conjugative essences transcending stylistic diversity.

It would appear I am the first person to specify the influence of Sonny Stitt on John Coltrane articulated above at least in written words. The way he plays sustained tones, particularly in the upper register, is perhaps the single most identifiable aspect of John Coltrane's playing, so detecting seeds of Sonny Stitt there is especially meaningful. Truth be told, I had to ponder this elusive point for a period of time before it revealed itself, reflecting upon pertinent connections informing the individual music of Sonny Stitt and John Coltrane.

The same would seem to apply to my specific observation tieing Stan Getz and John Coltrane here, likely being the first person to articulate this thought in words, something that occurred to me just now, curiosity directing me to answer the implied question.

- Michael Robinson, September 2022, Los Angeles


© 2022 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer, programmer, jazz pianist and musicologist. His 183 albums include 151 albums for meruvina and 32 albums of piano improvisations. Robinson has been a lecturer at UCLA, Bard College and California State University Long Beach and Dominguez Hills.